In Georgia, JDC’s Active Jewish Teens Network Has Become a Family Tradition

As a counselor for JDC's Active Jewish Teens program in Tbilisi, Duka Kakiashvili is helping build the next generation of young Jewish leaders — alongside his mother.

By Duka Kakiashvili - Community Volunteer and Madrich, Tbilisi, Georgia | July 20, 2020

Duka Kakiashvili at the 2017 AJT Conference in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

In one sense, my Jewish story began when I was five or six years old — participating in JDC children’s programs, then our Tbilisi youth club, and eventually Active Jewish Teens (AJT), the JDC teen network in the former Soviet Union (FSU) in partnership with BBYO and the Genesis Philanthropy Group.

Duka with his mother.

On the other hand, my story stretches back at least 20 years, before I was even born. My parents met in a JDC-supported teen club. My father was a volunteer coordinator there, and one day, my mom’s friend said to her, “You know, it’s really cool there. Do you want to come with me?” My mom was hooked.

What started for my mother as attending activities here and there turned into a real passion and eventually a job as a madricha (counselor). My parents began working together and eventually got married. Though my dad doesn’t work in the Jewish community anymore, my mom has been working for JDC in Georgia for 20 years; she currently serves as the youth program coordinator, working with our youth club and teaching teens about Jewish culture and traditions.

I grew up in the Jewish community, and as I got older, I started to carve out my own role. After so many years taking advantage of all the opportunities it had to offer, I decided it was time for me to bring my own ideas to make Jewish life in Georgia even better. I was a member of the first AJT parliament — the self-governing structure for our youth network — and when I was a few years older and had more experience working with children as a madrich, I started working with my mother. 

It’s very professional, even though she’s my mom. When we work together at family retreats or other community programs, I call her “Anna” or by her last name, Miladze. Friends of mine will say, “Isn’t she your mom?” and I tell them, “Not when we’re together at work.” I live at home while I’m at university, and it makes for an interesting dynamic. My mom and I go to the office and get our work done, and when we come home and eat dinner, we brainstorm new ideas over the dinner table.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve had to move a lot of our programs online, like our madrichim school, which trains the volunteers who will serve as counselors and coordinators for various community programs. We also took advantage of the lockdown to professionalize our youth club’s social media presence, making an official Facebook page and starting an Instagram. It’s really helped us have more flexibility in sharing AJT and BBYO posts, and it’s given us better analytics in tracking who’s interacting with our content.

Information spreads really, really fast now, especially through tools like Instagram Live. My friend Eva Stupka, the former AJT co-president, invited me to join the Chisinau, Moldova teen club’s Shabbat celebration, and about 50 people tuned in, most of whom I didn’t know. It turns out Eva didn’t know many of them either. From my point of view, that’s great — it means our teens are sharing the events with their friends, and it definitely made me feel like part of a global Jewish community. 

Duka leads a group of teens in a team-building exercise.

Our family Shabbat retreats are some of my favorite activities. These programs are where our community’s next generation takes its first steps. Many of my former campers have become madrichim and are now my colleagues. I’m really proud of that — it lets me know my work hasn’t been for nothing. The biggest and most important thing is to nurture these places where teens find themselves. At these events, seminars, and Shabbat retreats, they’re able to discover Jewish community on their own terms, figuring out how they can contribute and giving the most precious thing they have — their time.

I like to call JDC the “chance-giver.”

I’m hopeful our community will continue to grow and develop. For so many years, we’ve been focused on how to help our most vulnerable, and now we need to help ourselves become self-sustaining. I want everyone to realize that community is something you need to care for and constantly work to improve.

I like to call JDC the “chance-giver.” JDC gives us so many opportunities, but it’s up to us how we’ll use them. There are so many different things to learn, new things to try for the first time, new initiatives to begin — but that’s just the beginning of the story. The next chapter is ours to write, and that’s really exciting.

Duka Kakiashvili, 20, studies management and marketing at Ilia State University in Tbilisi, Georgia, where he also volunteers with the city’s youth club and works as a madrich (counselor) planning the community’s summer camps.

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